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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Noisy Library and Heloise

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, April 13, 2008


Newspaper writer Heloise has recently ran letters in her column discussing the issue of the "noise level" in libraries today.


It is an often-discussed topic in the library world with little agreement to a resolution.


In the first library in which I worked, there was a flashy orange sign on the wall that said, "No Silence."


People didn't know what to make of the sign; we were often asked what it meant.


The sign was a 1970s attempt to make people feel more at ease in their public library, and downplay the stereotype of a library of an earlier era.


You might remember the era of a librarian with a pencil behind his or her ear patrolling the library with a stern look, daring anyone to utter a word above a whisper.


So, what has happened to the silent library?


Librarians were looking for a "middle ground," a library that didn't scare people away but remained a place of quietness from the real world.


I think the first change was the public photocopy machine.  They made an appearance in most libraries circa 1970.


People came in the library just to make copies.  The noise of the machine and its coin box broke the mold of library silence.


Perhaps the bigger issue was the gradual change in a public library, from a place of books and information to a community center of information.


As other agencies ended their public service, or simply have disappeared from our society, the public library has emerged as a place for forms and information formerly provided by other agencies.


With that has come an increase in "foot traffic" in a public library creating more noise.


Add that to the change in our society over the past few years.


It is commonplace for us to walk around sipping on some sort of liquid and talking and answering phone calls that used to be an exclusive function of a home or work telephone that was connected to the system by a wire.


The more we do on computers, cell phones, or the variety of devises strapped to our bodies, the less personal interaction we do in our life.


So when we enter a public library, we tend to talk at "full voice."


Our staff is equally guilty of talking at full voice on-the-job, and if the staff talks loudly, everyone tends to elevate their voices.


So, what is the answer and what is the correct level of noise in a library?


I think it is acceptable to talk out loud in a clear, yet soft voice, recognizing other people that are sharing the space.


Many libraries have instituted "quiet areas" but most of our buildings aren't large enough to have separated areas of this function.


Enforcement of noise levels in libraries has become an equal issue.


Have you ever tried to get a cell phone user to lower their voice?  It often results in an even louder level of sound.


Let's look at the positive aspect.  We now have over 42,000 people with active library cards using our library system.


People see their public library as an information center and are using it.


I promise to try not to keep putting the pencil behind my ear.